Do right when things go wrong

17th February 2006 at 00:00
It is becoming increasingly common for members of the public andor pupils to make formal complaints against teachers. When this happens, it is particularly important that the rights of the individual against whom the complaints have been made are respected.

This means confidentiality must be maintained at all times. Last week, a Swansea teacher, previously named in the press, was told he would not be facing criminal charges over allegations of assaulting a child - although he remains suspended pending an internal school investigation.

Such cases appear to suggest the naming and shaming of teachers is becoming legitimised. This, however, is against natural justice, the individual's human rights and most disciplinary procedures. Moreover, it makes it difficult for staff to return to teaching duties in cases where they are exonerated. It is also difficult to carry out a proper investigation when an individual is named after a suspension.

Part of the present problem is that too many disciplinary procedures used against teachers make it too easy for complaints to be made. Too few contain appropriate penalties against complainants when accusations are false, wilful or vexatious.

Similarly, when complaints are made, the clerk to the board of governors should ensure the complainants understand the formal disciplinary procedure to be used, its timescale, modus operandi and possible outcomes. A key principle is the need for confidentiality on the part of complainants and, often, their supporters.

If and when accusations reach the public domain, it becomes difficult to distinguish between facts and fiction, and inevitably more emotion enters the arena. In turn, this adds to the stress imposed upon the teachers and an inevitable loss of self-esteem.

Often this reduction in self-esteem makes it very difficult for cleared teachers to return to work. Consequently, in some cases of false accusations, the complainants feel justified because indirectly they have gained a victory: the person either never teaches again or leaves the school.

While justifiable complaints must be investigated vigorously, and appropriate procedures followed, it is equally important that all parties fully understand the implications of their action and agree to abide by the disciplinary policy. Unless this happens, it may be impossible for a defendant to receive a fair hearing.

Professor Ken Reid is deputy principal of Swansea Institute of Higher Education.

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